Founder and director of civil engineering consulting firm MPA (Pty) Ltd (Malani Padayachee and Associates (Pty) Ltd

This is an extract from My Success, Your Success: Top tips from South African women entrepreneurs. It is reproduced with permission.

The first and last thing Malani Padayachee-Saman will tell you about herself is that she loves her job.

For Malani, founder and director of civil engineering consulting firm MPA Consulting, engineering is more than a way to earn a living, it is something beautiful and powerful, that has the potential to transform communities and build a better tomorrow. The passion she brings to the field goes some way towards explaining why, after 11 years in a tough, competitive and male dominated industry, her business is booming. As one of the few black, female-owned consulting engineering firms in South Africa, MPA is bound to attract attention, but it is for the level of excellence and commitment to delivering quality work on time and on budget that it has earned a reputation second to none in the industry.

It’s ironic, considering that Malani never meant to end up in engineering. ‘I wanted to be a geologist,’ she says. ‘But coming from a conservative Indian family, that was not considered  a viable career choice.’ Which is how she came to settle on engineering instead. Opting to study away from home, she set off for UCT to study chemical engineering but was back in Durban a year later after failing her first year in spectacular fashion. She picked up where she left off at the University of Durban Westville but while her marks improved, her enthusiasm for chemical engineering did not. Eventually, after two years and under the advice of her ‘inspirational’ Head of Department she decided enough was enough and switched streams into civil engineering.

Worried how her parents might react to her (possibly rash) decision – civil engineering is not usually a top career choice for women – she put off telling them for a whole semester. However, in the end her marks spoke for themselves. She bounded to the top of her class and graduated with honours in 1991 – one of the first black women to be capped a civil engineer in South Africa.

‘In such a male dominated environment I felt that I needed to prove myself,’ says Malani with a glint of humour.

Shortly after graduation, she joined a Durban-based transportation and planning company as part of a service obligation to them (they had paid for her last two years of tuition), where her on-the-job education started. A voracious learner, Malani dedicated herself to hoovering up as much information and experience as she could. It was not all scintillating stuff, but, says Malani, it provided a crucial grounding in the industry.

‘Young people often want to be engineers because they like the idea of being involved in big projects – but in fact you have to be prepared to put in the time in the trenches and gain the experience,’ she says.

For Malani, things started to get more interesting after she came across the inspiring work of former Johannesburg City Engineer, Eric Hall, who also worked as a consultant to her employers. Hall’s views on integrated environmental planning in particular struck a chord with Malani.

‘He emphasised lateral thinking which is unusual for engineers because we are often very focused,’ she says. ‘I found his work exciting. He helped me to see the wider potential of engineering and I very much wanted to learn more.’

Accordingly, she put in for a transfer up to Johannesburg where she was fortunate to be mentored by Eric Hall himself and another inspirational engineer Franz van der Wielen, both of whom taught her an enormous amount.

‘I had a very good rapport with them and they were so eager to teach me everything that they knew,’ she says. ‘I in turn was really anxious to learn. I knew that I needed to learn as much as I could while I could and I think that stands me in good stead today.’

Indeed, today Malani is pretty much able to hold her own in just about any facet of engineering and jokes that she has to remind her clients sometimes that she is not officially a structural engineer.

In Johannesburg she also found herself in a dream position for any young engineer, in that she was simultaneously given a lot of autonomy and exposed to some big construction projects – including a trenchless pipe-jacking of a sewer pipe 14 metres beneath ground level in the Johannesburg CBD. In the process she developed a passion and fascination for trenchless technology – a form of engineering that doesn’t involve digging huge, unsightly and disruptive open trenches all over the place to get things done – that endures to this day.

Hoping to get some international experience in trenchless technology, Malani applied for and won a UK Department of Trade and Industry scholarship in1996 that allowed her to spend a year working in the UK. Despite the fact that the experience did not live up to expectations in terms of the skills she was exposed to, it gave her a huge boost of confidence. At the end of her internship, the company she worked for offered her a permanent job, but Malani was drawn back to South Africa because of the challenges and exciting work it promised – building new structures and delivering services to people who have never had them held more promise than the rehabilitation of existing infrastructure.

She had also determined to start her own business and had in fact spent good portion of her year overseas writing and refining a massively detailed business plan for that purpose.

Back home, she returned to her old company and served out the last six months of her career as an employee before handing in her long-prepared notice. The whole plan, however, was nearly derailed when the day before she handed over that decisive letter to her boss, she found out she was pregnant with her first child.

Although it might have been more prudent to hold off for another year or two before starting the business, Malani decided that, with or without a baby to liven things up, the time to go on her own was right then. So, taking a deep breath and a big leap of faith, she went ahead with her plans.

With nothing more than an R80 000 loan from her past employers, who were very supportive of her decision, she started Malani Padayachee and Associates in the winter of 1997. To keep costs and risks to a minimum, she set herself up from home (all it took was a computer a desk and a phone/fax machine) and started to look for clients. Because of the pregnancy she took things slowly, even so it was a crazy time. She was working insane hours but could only draw a pittance from the business as she needed most of the money to invest in growth.

Four months down the line she landed her first client – Metro Gas. Six months in she employed her first staff member. During all this time she managed to conceal her pregnancy for fear of what her brand new clients might think. As it turns out they would have had nothing to worry about, Malani’s son was born – conveniently enough – over the New Year period when construction is always quiet – and she was back at work after just a week off.

A year later, when Malani got tired of sharing her lounge with her business and keeping a crawling baby out of the office and away from the clients was getting tougher, she moved the business into a nearby office block. In their new home, which was both more professional and spacious, she felt she could put her foot on the accelerator a bit and launched an intensive marketing drive to broaden their client base.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ says Malani. ‘It was still very male orientated and I needed to prove myself in this environment. I was very lucky in having been exposed to many key people in the City of  Johannesburg during my career so it was easy enough for me to get an introduction at least.’

She also found that the very thing that might have been construed as a disadvantage – the fact the she was a woman – turned out to work in her favour.

‘I found that often it opened doors as there was a curiosity factor,’ she says. ‘After that of course you still had to prove that you were competent. And then you had to ensure that you delivered.

‘Often it’s the people who are most difficult to convince who end up respecting you most and become your greatest champion.’

Gradually, the hard work paid off, her reputation for quality and delivery spread and Malani found that she was being listed on all the rosters and databases that counted. Repeat business started to come in and the consultancy began to grow.

Before long she had created employment for 13 people. To accommodate the growing business she bought a house and converted it into offices creating a close-knit family environment that she really enjoyed.

To help her cope with the increased pressures of balancing work and home life, Malani also orchestrated some moving in the domestic sphere. Specifically, she relocated her parents from Cape Town to Johannesburg installing them in a house a few blocks away from hers to help provide crucial backup support for her son. A year later a month before the birth of her twins, she did the same thing with her in-laws who lived on the south coast and installed them on the same road in the other direction!

She also has a ‘very supportive husband’ and a paid helper on hand to ensure that things in the home are made as easy as possible.

‘I’ve got a very, very good support system and am the envy of most people I really am,’ she says. ‘I don’t have to sit here late at night and worry about what is going on at home.’

Even so, says Malani, as a working mother ‘you are always on a guilt trip’. She keeps it at bay by reading as many inspirational books as she can and by prioritising time with her family. A fan of routines and organisation, Malani likes to sit down on 2nd January with her diary and block out all the weekends and holidays she plans to take in the year ahead so that she knows these times are non-negotiable family times.

She applies the same ingenuity and consideration to her working environment. From early on, Malani decided that there was value in seeking to do business differently. In her early career she had witnessed enough overly bureaucratic and dysfunctional environments to convince her that there had to be merit in doing things in another way. As a result, MPA consulting is a living laboratory for business unusual.

First off, Malani’s business is very nurturing and skills oriented. She has an open door policy and adopts quite a ‘mothering’ approach to her staff.

‘It either goes down well or it doesn’t,’ she admits, ‘but I think it’s a good quality. It means that I have a personal interest in people’s welfare and I don’t make decisions that will affect that welfare lightly. I thrive on the fact that people do benefit from working here and it’s satisfying to me.’

Implicit in this mothering is a concern for skills development. Malani has always maintained that a company is only as successful as its employees and that it is better to retain staff than to have to deal with constant recruiting of new staff. This, coupled with the fact that engineering is a skills intensive profession, means that there is a lot of staff training at MPA consulting.

Mentoring too plays a big role in the organisation. Because of her own positive experience of mentoring, Malani has made it an explicit part of her business model – ensuring that young talent is nurtured by older and more experienced engineers. In fact, she retains the services of several retired or semi-retired professionals a large part of whose job it is to mentor her junior staff. It is something that has worked out brilliantly in that it ensures that skills and experience are being embedded in the organisation, while also freeing up Malani to focus on other things. ‘It’s the reason why I can do so much,’ she says, adding that she thinks it is also the single biggest reason for her success.

Also key to their success in Malani’s view is the fact that they don’t compromise on IT. Some years ago, she implemented a project management software tool that has streamlined operations and considerably improved the service that MPA can offer to its clients. The locally developed software tool effectively links the administrative systems of all projects so that staff can capture time sheets and generate invoices in real time. In addition, project managers can, at the touch of a button, assess the profitability and productivity of a project on a daily basis if they need to.

Malani says that although it involved a significant investment upfront, the system has paid for itself 100 times over not least because it has helped them build an excellent rapport with clients. Malani says that they always encourage feedback from clients so that if there is problem area it can be addressed quickly and this has considerably added to their reputation in the industry.

In fact, their reputation is so healthy that MPA consulting is again on a growth path. Although Malani had told herself that she didn’t want to grow beyond about 15 people, a few years ago she realised that the climate for growth was too favourable to ignore. And with her children then a little older she thought that she might risk putting her foot on the accelerator once again.

She has not looked back, the only downside being that they were forced to leave their homely offices and move into a larger block in Randburg where Malani has to work harder to retain the open and friendly vibe they had going in the old offices. In her usual industrial and practical way, she has subsequently turned the old building into a spa that she runs as one of several small ‘hobby’ businesses on the side (she also has a guest house and an ecotourism venture in Rustenburg).

Around the same time that they moved, Malani also initiated a re-branding process to move the focus of the business away from herself and overcome the so-called ‘founder syndrome’. As a result Malani Padayachee and Associates officially adopted the shortened version of MPA (Pty) Ltd in early 2008.

‘In hindsight I would never have named the business after myself,’ she says. ‘It was a silly thing to do because some clients seem to think that unless you, the founder, are working on their project that you are not giving them your best. This is obviously not true.’

Now employing 33 people and counting (the current target is 40), the future for MPA consulting looks bright.  For Malani, the challenges ahead also continue to excite her. In addition to keeping her hand in – at any given time she has about 21 live projects on her plate – she is exploring new international markets for the business and also hopes to spend more time helping to market civil engineering as a profession believing that a major recruitment and publicity drive is required to boost the industry.

‘It’s a great profession to go into,’ she says. ‘We have a huge shortage of skills in this country and we really need to attract good people – especially women – into the business. I do not think women realise how well suited they are to the industry, especially consulting. They incorrectly see it as wandering around in hard hats on construction sites – but that is only part of it. Women have a number of natural attributes which are useful to the industry, such as multitasking and lateral thinking.’

She also thinks that women, like her, have the potential to bring greater passion to the industry and help it to achieve great things for the country. Certainly, if Malani’s story is anything to go by there is a lot that a woman can be in the tough world of civil engineering.

Malani’s top tips for success

1. Follow your gut and don’t contemplate things for too long. If it feels right, go for it.

2. See opportunities as a stepping stone towards something that can be a lot bigger.

3. Stand by what you believe in. It is important to believe that there is a reason for everything that you do. Everybody has a belief system and you should tap into that. For myself, I believe that there is good in everything and it is just a matter of finding it.

4. Be thankful for what you have.

5. Set yourself goals as this can help you to achieve. By 25 I wanted to own my own property and my own car and I wanted to have traveled overseas. I was able to achieve all three of these goals and have used goals ever since to help me to achieve more.

6. You need to plan. Spend time on your business plan then address the plan regularly to keep it current and focused.

7. Whatever you choose to do you need to be passionate about it. You need to want to come to work.

8. Persevere. It’s difficult running a business in any environment and you have to be prepared to push through the hard times.

9. Keep your risks and costs as low as you can in the beginning. A consulting environment is particularly conducive to starting from home.

10. Take regular time out to de-stress. I am a big believer in massage therapy and I also spend time on creative things such as painting and decoupage. I find that if you have something creative to focus on that is totally divorced from the day-to-day it helps to bring balance into your life.